Top Stories of 2013 No. 1 Hospital’s planned closing raises concerns

Published 5:03 pm Monday, December 30, 2013

FILE PHOTO | DAILY NEWS Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal (right) greets a couple attending a rally concerning the future of Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven.

Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal (right) greets a couple attending a rally concerning the future of Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven.

Vidant Health’s decision to close Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven is the Washington Daily News’ No.1 story for 2013.

The decision to close the hospital was announced in early September. That announcement was the catalyst for rallies in support of keeping the hospital open, a forum conducted by Vidant Health officials to explain the decision to close the hospital and meetings between Vidant Health officials and local government officials to explore possible options related to providing health care as the hospital prepares to close.

Belhaven officials, especially Mayor Adam O’Neal, oppose the closing of the hospital and make it clear that if the hospital closes they want the new clinic replacing it to have a full-service emergency room. Vidant Health officials indicate that likely won’t happen. Belhaven officials contend Vidant Health was not upfront with the town and its residents concerning the hospital’s future when it took over ownership and management of the hospital several years ago

“Vidant came to town and misrepresented to the people what their intentions were, and I hope that through our efforts we’re able to secure the hospital for the people of Belhaven,” O’Neal said in a recent interview. “We have to have an ER for the people of Belhaven. It (the closing) will handicap our area economically forever.”

The mayor continued, “It’s a horrific thing to do to the community when there are other options than closing the facility.”

A primary concern of Belhaven officials, residents and others in the area served by Vidant Pungo Hospital is how the closing will affect emergency medical services in the hospital’s service area. They worry that longer response times and transport times to other medical facilities will result in lives lost.

Even offers by Vidant Health to help pay for enhancements to the area’s EMS efforts were seen by some people as nothing more than “hush” money.

In September, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to support the Town of Belhaven in its effort to retain full emergency-room services for whatever medical facility the town ends up with in light of Vidant Health’s plans to close Vidant Pungo Hospital.

In early November, the commissioners voted to table action on an offer by Vidant Health to provide the county up to $500,000 to help transition the county’s EMS system to the paramedic level during the next several years. Some people said that decision may or may not be in the best interest of providing improved EMS efforts in the county, but time will tell.

The commissioners won some folks’ admiration for sticking with their decision to support Belhaven. The commissioners rejected the offer as a show of solidarity with the Town of Belhaven, which rejected the offer. O’Neal pleaded with the commissioners not to accept the offer.

O’Neal made quite an impassioned plea.

O’Neal said Vidant Health’s offer of $500,000 to elevate the county EMS system to the paramedic level does not meet the needs of the Belhaven area and its residents. They need a full-service emergency room, not a clinic, he said.

Earlier this year, Vidant Health announced it would close Vidant Pungo Hospital and replace it with an around-the-clock multispecialty clinic.

Commissioner Hood Richardson said if the county accepts the Vidant Health offer, it would be “cutting Belhaven’s throat.” By accepting the offer, Richardson said, the county would be removing Belhaven’s ability to negotiate with Vidant Health concerning health care in the Belhaven area.

“We’re in the position here of prostituting ourselves for $500,000. I guess it gets down to what are you worth. I can’t vote for this because it is harming the Belhaven area and their ability to determine the direction they want to go in and need to go in,” Richardson said.

For now, Vidant Health plans to close the hospital’s emergency room in March and proceed with building the new clinic.

The proposed clinic planned for Belhaven after Vidant Pungo Hospital closes, will be built between the post office and Food Lion shopping center, according to Vidant Health officials.

On Dec. 20, Vidant Health purchased 19.4 acres in the town for the new multispecialty clinic that would be open 24 hours a day. The clinic will be located at 601 Old County Road. The land is south of U.S. Highway 264.

It will take about 18 months to design and build the new 12,000-square-foot clinic, according to Vidant Health. The project cost is $4.2 million. The clinic grounds will include a helipad for air tra

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

email author More by Mike